Plenty of guidance for investors

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The Independent Online
Investors hoping to divine the future direction of global interest rates will have several key economic reports to pick over this week.

In the US, the first snapshot of inflation in 1997 will come on Wednesday, when the January consumer price index is published. Any sign that economic growth is feeding through to prices could raise concern that the Federal Reserve might have to raise rates at its next meeting on 25 March.

Rate-rise proponents have some ammunition. Last week, the Dow Jones Industrial Average romped through 7,000 for the first time - leaving it 500 points above the level it was at when Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan warned of "irrational exuberance" in the markets.

Investors' nerves were soothed on Friday, however, when a report on US producer prices showed an unexpected drop in January - the first in more than two years - while a separate report showed industrial output stalled. If those reports are followed by a moderate inflation figure this week, any rate-rise concern will recede.

"The first quarter is going to be a lot slower than the fourth quarter and now those numbers are starting to show," said Emmett Wright at Bank of Boston.

In Germany, M3 money supply for January will be published sometime this week. M3 is the Bundesbank's barometer of future inflation and its primary guide for setting interest rates.

German rates, which act as a base for money market rates throughout Europe, have been left at historic lows for the last six months. The Bundesbank, keen to maintain stability in financial markets in a year of speculation over Europe's planned single currency, may leave rates alone for another 12 months.

"Our main scenario is that the Bundesbank will leave rates unchanged for a long, long time," said Ulrich Beckmann, at Deutsche Bank. "We don't see any rate changes this year."

Continuing on its mission of price stability, the Bundesbank is set to ride through record high unemployment and sluggish economic performance over winter and wait for an export-led expansion in the second quarter.

The weakness of the German mark should eventually trigger such a recovery. The mark has fallen more than 8 per cent against the dollar this year and promises to help the car industry and chemical firms.

Concern about the political implications of German unemployment, however, has revived talk in some quarters that the Bundesbank may bow to pressure to stimulate the economy by cutting rates.

Closer to home, UK retail sales figures for January will be released this week. December's figures suggested that 1996's recovery in consumer spending was beginning to run out of steam and investors will look to see if the trend is continuing.

Recent evidence from the British Retail Consortium suggests sales in stores rose 4.9 per cent in January from a year earlier - a level of spending that is healthy but probably not enough to raise concerns about inflation.

"These figures are reassuring," said Andrew Sentance, the chief economic advisor to the BRC. "They suggest that consumer spending will continue to support the growth of the UK economy in the first half of the year." Copyright: IOS & Bloomberg